How Important Is Your Statement of Faith? Practical Tips to Protect Your Ministry’s Religious Liberties
Protecting Your First Amendment Religious Liberties:
Ensuring that Your Governing Documents Include a Proper Statement of Faith
Hey, aren’t religious organizations like churches or private religious schools already safe from government interference?
Under the First Amendment, the U.S. Constitution provides an undeniable right to the “free exercise” of religion for churches, religious ministries, and private Christian schools. In recent days, there have been some troubling cultural, political, and legal developments recently that demonstrate once again that religious liberty is always in need of a strong legal defense. In fact, there are many ways churches (and other religious organizations) can help reinforce their First Amendment rights.
The most crucial way to protect religious liberty rights is by including a proper Statement of Faith in the religious organization’s governing documents.[i] Let’s briefly explore why a church’s Statement of Faith in the governing documents, specifically the bylaws, is so important to reinforcing a church’s religious liberty rights.
Then, what are the threats to our religious liberties?
An increasing number of churches are experiencing significant threats against their sincerely held religious beliefs through often very public efforts to stamp down the free exercise of religion. These damaging efforts are coming in the form of:
- employment claims (EEOC) and resulting litigation;
- federal and state litigation;
- federal and state laws/proposals;
- local ordinances;
- state attorney general investigations;
- property tax exemption denials;
- church discipline disputes; and
- IRS inquiries.
So, how can a Statement of Faith help any of this?
As an initial matter, the Statement of Faith is not a shield protecting the church from every potential legal dagger thrown in its direction. However, the Statement of Faith serves as the crucial bylaws provision establishing “why” the church operates in its designated manner. A proper Statement of Faith articulates the sincerely held religious beliefs clearly entitled to long-established, recognized, and protected First Amendment freedom of religion principles. The Statement of Faith, in the bylaws, equips the church with the “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”[ii]
Okay, the Statement of Faith is important, but what types of topics and other elements should be addressed here?
We are glad you asked. Here are five recommendations for preparing a proper Statement of Faith:
- Add Scripture citations, quotes, and/or verses to every belief.
- This provides the evidence and authority for the church’s sincerely held religious beliefs. Your Statement of Faith should be abundantly clear that it derives from Scripture. Clearly citing the Scriptural authority is paramount importance.
- If applicable, underscore the church’s adherence and/or acceptance of certain denominational documents and authorities.
- Again, this provides evidence of the church’s sincerely held religious beliefs. The more clearly the church can articulate its religious beliefs, the better it will be able to rest upon its religious beliefs.
- Clearly summarize the church’s core fundamental beliefs essential to the church.
- Clarity here is the church’s friend. No court will engage in an analysis of what the church teaches when deciding cases. Be clear, so everyone knows what the church teaches and why.
- Consider explaining the Church’s sincerely held beliefs about the following topics.
- So-Called Same-Sex Marriage.
- Common Law Marriage.
- So-Called Gender Identity.
- Bathroom Access.
- Ecclesiastical or Doctrinal Autonomy.
- Other Beliefs Central to the Church.
- Add Scripture citations, quotes, and/or verses to every belief.
Unfortunately, increasing amounts of litigation including employment and other disputes centered on whether the church has a sincerely held religious belief about these topics. As noted above, clarity is the church’s dear friend here. Do not be afraid. Be confident to engage the world.
Great—my church has such a proper Statement of Faith in our bylaws. What are the real-world benefits besides clearly showing the world we are indeed a church with these sincerely held religious beliefs?
First, the Statement of Faith may help proactively chill a party’s (or their attorney’s) desire for a potential lawsuit or claim against the church. This is because the party is well aware that the church will legitimately lean on the Statement of Faith to show that the church’s basis for its actions reside in the church’s sincerely held religious beliefs. For example, an employee otherwise tempted to file an employment discrimination or EEOC claim against the church may reconsider because the church has made clear the religious beliefs behind its actions. Rather than some discriminatory or other federal or state law violation, the church exercised its religious freedom by relying upon its religious liberties outlined in the Statement of Faith. Pointing to the Statement of Faith in the bylaws underscores that the church’s very existence and operations are cemented by the church’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
Second, the Statement of Faith will help serve as a valid defensive mechanism if the church is ultimately sued, investigated, or otherwise in the midst of a dispute with a governmental authority. Courts generally regard a clear Statement of Faith as an expression of the church’s doctrine, and thus defer to the religious organization pursuant to the First Amendment.[iii] Accordingly, aside from any other constitutional protections, courts may then safely conclude the church acted in accord with its well-documented, clear, sincerely held religious beliefs as opposed to some acting under an improper, discriminatory, or invalid motivation.
Based on this great information, should we double-check our organization’s Statement of Faith?
Yes! You should also check your governing documents to ensure they contain all current applicable federal and state law provisions. Moreover, you should verify that the governing documents reflect how the church truly operates as a religious organization. With over fifty (50) years of combined experience, My Church Law Firm can help you assess and update your governing documents. With our assistance, your church, ministry, private Christian school, or other nonprofit can be assured the documents contain all the most current protections, safeguards, and mechanisms to best protect you and your religious liberties. Please feel free to contact us today to discuss your governing documents or any other matters. God bless you!
[i] Here, the term “governing documents” refers to the articles of incorporation (with different jurisdictions having different terms for the document) and bylaws. The articles of incorporation are filed with the applicable Secretary of State for your jurisdiction. Because it is a public document, we generally recommend the articles of incorporation focus mainly on the necessary federal and state law provisions. Bylaws should contain all the religious liberties provisions discussed herein.
[ii] Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952).
[iii] Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049, 2055-2056 (2020); Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U. S. 171, 190-191 (2012); Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952).